Histories of Tithes: Religious Controversy and Changing Methodologies

by Madeline McMahon

In December 1618, the talented scholar John Selden was called before King James to answer for the publication of his Historie of tithes (London: William Stansby, 1618). Selden’s work on tithes (literally, the “tenth” of all goods due to the church) had instantly incited controversy. Selden was made to apologize to the High Commission of bishops and forbidden to respond to the royally commissioned attacks against his book (G. J. Toomer, “Selden’s ‘Historie of Tithes’: Genesis, Publication, Aftermath”). Reflecting back on this moment several decades later in his Vindiciae, Selden recalled that

Although it had been licensed…by the signature of one of the priestly tribe, yet once it had been printed, it offended very many of them, and also all the bishops then about the court, with the exception of the then Bishop of Winchester, that most learned and peerless Lancelot Andrewes, who was quite pleased by it as being in agreement with the most accepted practices amongst us…Hence those fierce hornets [i.e. bishops at court]…incited the mind of the king… (Selden, Vindiciae, 16 – 17. English translation from G. J. Toomer, “Selden’s ‘Historie of Tithes’: Genesis, Publication, Aftermath” 361-2.]

Selden’s account reveals the influence of what Kenneth Fincham called “court prelates”—the bishops who made their home at King James’s court. It also raises questions. Why did Selden’s already licensed book offend? And why, alone of all the court prelates, was Lancelot Andrewes instead “quite pleased” by the Historie of tithes?

Under James, the status and collection of tithes had not improved since the reformation reallocated church property to the state and prominent private citizens: as support for parish clergy, tithes were inadequate, unreliable, and often went to leading laymen anyway. In the later years under Elizabeth, clergy began to argue what had been “politically unacceptable” following the reformation: that tithes were due jure divino—by divine right (E. A. Bershadsky, “Politics, Erudition and Ecclesiology: John Selden’s ‘Historie of Tithes’ and its contexts and ramifications”, 4; Toomer, John Selden: A Life in Scholarship, 257-8).

Andrewes was one of the first to make this argument in his dissertation for his Doctorate of Divinity at Cambridge in 1590, when he was thirty-five years old. Like many writing a dissertation, he claimed (justifiably in his case) that his argument was new: “nor is there any by whose candle I shall light mine” (Of the Right of Tithes. A Divinity Determination… (London: Andrew Hebb, 1647), 5). This “avant-garde defence of clerical tithes” which “ran counter to advanced protestant opinion” was a risk that paid off: Andrewes was immediately made chaplain to both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Queen (Peter McCullough, Lancelot Andrewes: Selected Sermons and Lectures, lviii; McCullough, ODNB). Andrewes was one of the first of a movement that pushed back against the earlier Protestant reformers, especially the Calvinism prominent in the Church of England (see Peter Lake’s essay in The Mental World of the Jacobean Court). It was true, he admitted, that before the reformation “the desire to increase the Revenue of the Clergy proceeded to such a height, that it was greatly to be feared, lest the Church should swallow up the Common-wealth” (Right of Tithes, 3). The reformers had addressed this and other abuses, but Andrewes wished they had “taken care not onely of increasing the light, but also of allowing oil”—providing means for the church they had reformed (Right of Tithes, 5). Andrewes sought to defend tithes from abrogation by proving that they were “provided for by the Sacred Law” (jure divino) by “God, the Lawyer himself” (5).

Andrewes drew on a range of evidence. He turned to two passages of scripture as the cruxes of his argument: Abraham giving tithes to the priest Melchizedek in Genesis 14:20 and, ironically, Jesus’s critique of tithes in Matthew 23:23. Melchizedek blessed Abraham and Abraham in return gave a tenth of his goods (Right of Tithes, 6). This, for Andrewes, was the moment that established tithes by sacred law, as the return due to the priesthood for its services.

Andrewes went on to prove that tithes had been considered due jure divino throughout history—and not just in the Jewish and Christian religions. Greco-Roman religions mandated tithes as well, which meant that not only sacred but also natural law required such payments (24). He pointed out tithes’ protection by canon and civil law, including English common law (13) and cited different church fathers to illustrate the ubiquity of tithes across the early Christian world. He also argued from “Reason” that clergymen’s dependence on the fruits of the earth made them more sympathetic to their agrarian parishioners—tithes made for a better community (22). At the end, though, Andrewes returned to “the example of Melchisedek, who surpasseth the antiquity and faith of all Histories” (26).

Under James, it became de rigueur to argue that tithes were owed according to sacred law. Andrewes’ once subversive argument had become the norm. While Selden did not write against tithes, his approach and rationale was opposite to Andrewes’, despite the fact that he touched on similar topics and even structured his book in much the same way. For Selden, the Jewish practice of tithes was neither continuous nor relevant to that of the Christian church. Besides, Selden pointed out with philological and historical bravado, technically Abraham had paid Melchizedek spoils of war (The Historie of Tithes, 1-3). The early church was supported by charity rather than legal requirement. Only in the late medieval church were tithes enforced.

In his defense to the king, Selden wrote that he had “resolved wholly to leave the point of divine right of tythes, and keep myself wholly to the historical part” (“Of my Purpose and End in writing the History of Tythes”, quoted in Toomer, John Selden, 259). The title of his work—the Historie, rather than Right of tithes—signaled Selden’s real departure from previous approaches. Perhaps Andrewes saw something of his own in Selden’s work: another subversive and innovative treatment of tithes. Both Andrewes’ and Selden’s works were coopted several decades later when the case for an established church itself was at stake. Andrewes’ dissertation was translated and published in 1647, while Selden noted in the 1650s that clergymen then sought

where they might find the best argument for their tithes, setting aside the jus diuinum; they were advised to my History of Tithes, a book so much cried down by them formerly (in which, I dare boldly say, there are more arguments for them than are extant together anywhere)… (Selden, Table Talk, quoted in Toomer, “Selden’s ‘Historie of Tithes’,” 374-5)

4 comments

  1. So I like the idea that Andrewes was hooked by the challenge of Selden and his method—which, with its sharp emphasis on the difference between modern and original sources and its range, certainly didn’t look like the approach Andrewes employed in his dissertation. But I suspect it’s possible to drill deeper. I’m struck on the one hand by Andrewes’ neat distinction between patristic opinion and patristic evidence of practice; on the other by his use of Postel (!) and Alexander ab Alexandro, just the sort of writers that Selden would have dismissed as late and lacking authority. One of the big differences between the Andrewes of the dissertation and Selden has to do with the latter’s approach to the Jewish material. His chapter 2, with its heaps of material from “the rabbins” and the Jewish lawyers, is a virtuoso demonstration of a thesis he took from Scaliger: that the Talmud, like the Roman Corpus iuris, contained the remains of a vital body of jurisprudence, which could be reset into historical context and order and used to reconstruct the laws and practices of Second Temple Judaism. Selden’s treatment of tithes takes off from Scaliger’s Diatribe on the subject, published posthumously in the latter’s Opuscula (unusually, Selden has annotated the start of this treatise in his copy of the 1612 edition, Bodleian Library 8° S 37 Art.Seld). Even though Selden was quite critical of Scaliger on specific points, he made clear that he was following paths that Scaliger had opened—both in elucidatibg the Jewish law and practice of tithes from Jewish sources and, more generally, in insisting on a systematic return ad fontes, even if the springs in question bubbled up in the Talmud. Scaliger’s method, of course, was well known to Isaac Casaubon—who edited Scaliger’s Opuscula, and whose friendship with Andrewes fell in the years 1610-14, neatly between the time of the writing of the dissertation and the appearance of the History of Tithes. Did knowing Casaubon and discussing related issues with him help Andrewes to appreciate Selden’s work in a way that wouldn’t have been possible before?

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    1. Tony, thank you so much for your feedback. Definitely possible to drill deeper. Because of my focus on Andrewes’ minor involvement (if even that) in the controversy over Selden’s Historie, this post makes the story of changing approaches to tithes from 1590 to 1618 look like it goes from point A to B and eclipses crucial contributions like Scaliger’s—your complication of that story is much appreciated! I had mostly read about Selden as critical of Scaliger’s work on tithes, so your notes on how Selden borrowed from and followed Scaliger are very helpful (and I hope I can look at Selden’s annotated Scaliger soon).

      I love the idea of Casaubon making Andrewes more sympathetic to Scaliger’s and thereby Selden’s methods! That’s pretty much all I can say for now—I’m in the process of learning more about Andrewes’ writings on Hebrew government and ecclesiastical polity. If I can fully contextualize those writings, hopefully I’ll be able to give you a more concrete answer.

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  2. Cool post Maddy. I thought it was excellent. I was particularly intrigued by the references to Melchizedek by both Andrewes and Selden. I know this is a fairly minor point of the post, but one of the chapters of my diss—which is completely novel and will revolutionize the academy—has to do with the role that this quasi-mythical figure played in discussions among radical Protestants in Germany and the Netherlands. I’m curious, was Selden’s claim that “Jewish practice of tithes was neither continuous nor relevant to that of the Christian church” also referring to Andrewes’ Melchizedek-based argument or mainly to the later collection of tithes by the Levitical Priesthood? I ask because even though Selden criticizes Andrewes for treating Jewish practices as normative, he must have recognized that Melchizedek stood apart (as Andrewes himself hints) from standard “Jewish practice” because of the long Christian hermeneutical tradition of seeing Melchizedek as a shadow and type of Christ. Does Selden’s historicism go so far as to call this tradition into question? I would be interested to know as well if either Selden or Andrewes’ texts on tithes engaged much with the seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews that uses Abraham’s ‘tithes’ to Melchizedek as its primary evidence for a ‘higher’ Melchizedek priesthood order. I guess my larger point is that I am not surprised that Selden’s text was controversial if his historicizing was attempting to put asunder what God had joined together, namely the larger coherency of the Old and New Testaments.

    I admittedly don’t know much about either of this figures (same goes for the English setting) but it would be interesting to see the differences or similarities in discussions of Judaic/early Christian clericalism within various Protestant contexts.

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  3. Nice one, Maddy! This looks super-promising as an indication of the research and attendant ideas you’re starting to develop on this subject. I’m hardly in a position to add anything substantive, but I am struck by some long-range continuities, since many of my colleagues at Columbia seem to study law and political and economic theory either in the early middle ages or the twentieth century! What I’ve gleaned from reading their work is that it seems very important to answer questions about why these topics matter: one of my colleagues has to answer ontological questions about the nature of justice and why it mattered to the early medieval society he studies, while another has to try to make her readers care about 20th-century taxation policy. I’m struck that your approach has the answers to similar questions built right in: clearly, law and economic policy weren’t separate from theology, theories of history, or the nature of state power and its relationship to the church.

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